Evaluation of Wintertime Precipitation Estimates and Forecasts in the Mountains of Colorado

Janice L. Bytheway aNOAA/Physical Sciences Laboratory, Boulder, Colorado

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William R. Currier aNOAA/Physical Sciences Laboratory, Boulder, Colorado

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Mimi Hughes aNOAA/Physical Sciences Laboratory, Boulder, Colorado

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Kelly Mahoney aNOAA/Physical Sciences Laboratory, Boulder, Colorado

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Rob Cifelli aNOAA/Physical Sciences Laboratory, Boulder, Colorado

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Abstract

Wintertime precipitation poses many observational and forecasting challenges, especially in the complex topography of the western United States where radar beam blockage and difficulty siting in situ observations yields more sparse observations than in the eastern United States. Uncertainty in western U.S. winter precipitation is known to be high, so much so that some studies have found model simulated precipitation to produce similar or better large-scale estimates of annual precipitation than gridded observational products during climatologically anomalous years. This study evaluates high-resolution gridded precipitation estimates from Multi-Radar Multi-Sensor (MRMS) and Stage IV as well as forecasts from NOAA’s High-Resolution Rapid Refresh (HRRR) model in the Colorado Rocky Mountains. Gridded precipitation estimates and forecasts are compared with in situ SNOTEL measurements for two seasons of wintertime precipitation. The influence of forecast length, lead time, and model elevation on seasonal precipitation predictions from the HRRR are investigated. Additional comparisons are made with the relatively dense network of observations deployed in Colorado’s East River Watershed during the Study of Precipitation, the Lower Atmosphere and Surface for Hydrometeorology (SPLASH) campaign. Gridded products and forecasts are found to underestimate cold-season precipitation by 25%–65% relative to in situ and aircraft measurements, with longer forecast periods and lead times (6–24 h) having smaller biases (25%–30%) than shorter forecast periods and lead times (55%–65%). The assessment of multiple years of observations indicates that these biases are related more to the data and methods used to create the gridded products and forecasts than to precipitation characteristics.

Significance Statement

In the mountainous western United States, it is very challenging to both observe and forecast wintertime precipitation, yet snowfall plays an important role in providing the region’s annual water supply. This study aims to increase our understanding of the biases in observations and forecasts of snowfall in the Colorado Rocky Mountains, which can in turn impact forecasts of water availability for the ensuing warm season. In this study we find high-resolution gridded precipitation estimates and forecasts to underestimate cold-season precipitation when compared with in situ observing stations, with longer-range forecasts (e.g., daily) being the least biased. These findings were consistent over two years of study and have broad implications for the hydrologic modeling and water management communities.

For information regarding reuse of this content and general copyright information, consult the AMS Copyright Policy (www.ametsoc.org/PUBSReuseLicenses).

Corresponding author: Janice Bytheway, janice.bytheway@noaa.gov

Abstract

Wintertime precipitation poses many observational and forecasting challenges, especially in the complex topography of the western United States where radar beam blockage and difficulty siting in situ observations yields more sparse observations than in the eastern United States. Uncertainty in western U.S. winter precipitation is known to be high, so much so that some studies have found model simulated precipitation to produce similar or better large-scale estimates of annual precipitation than gridded observational products during climatologically anomalous years. This study evaluates high-resolution gridded precipitation estimates from Multi-Radar Multi-Sensor (MRMS) and Stage IV as well as forecasts from NOAA’s High-Resolution Rapid Refresh (HRRR) model in the Colorado Rocky Mountains. Gridded precipitation estimates and forecasts are compared with in situ SNOTEL measurements for two seasons of wintertime precipitation. The influence of forecast length, lead time, and model elevation on seasonal precipitation predictions from the HRRR are investigated. Additional comparisons are made with the relatively dense network of observations deployed in Colorado’s East River Watershed during the Study of Precipitation, the Lower Atmosphere and Surface for Hydrometeorology (SPLASH) campaign. Gridded products and forecasts are found to underestimate cold-season precipitation by 25%–65% relative to in situ and aircraft measurements, with longer forecast periods and lead times (6–24 h) having smaller biases (25%–30%) than shorter forecast periods and lead times (55%–65%). The assessment of multiple years of observations indicates that these biases are related more to the data and methods used to create the gridded products and forecasts than to precipitation characteristics.

Significance Statement

In the mountainous western United States, it is very challenging to both observe and forecast wintertime precipitation, yet snowfall plays an important role in providing the region’s annual water supply. This study aims to increase our understanding of the biases in observations and forecasts of snowfall in the Colorado Rocky Mountains, which can in turn impact forecasts of water availability for the ensuing warm season. In this study we find high-resolution gridded precipitation estimates and forecasts to underestimate cold-season precipitation when compared with in situ observing stations, with longer-range forecasts (e.g., daily) being the least biased. These findings were consistent over two years of study and have broad implications for the hydrologic modeling and water management communities.

For information regarding reuse of this content and general copyright information, consult the AMS Copyright Policy (www.ametsoc.org/PUBSReuseLicenses).

Corresponding author: Janice Bytheway, janice.bytheway@noaa.gov

Supplementary Materials

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